Profound sadness was my dominant emotion as I watched one of the cable news shows this morning. Two attractive young 'political analysts', a handsome African American and a winsome blonde, (guess their politics), 'illuminated' the presidential race. Vacuous and incendiary were the only modifiers that came to my mind. Whatever your politics, whichever news channel you favor, the diet is poisonous.
When I joined CNN in 1989, I was ecstatic. To be part of an organization that could spend 24 hours a day covering important issues around the world was a dream come true. While the vision didn't always comport with reality, it matched up much of the time. As time went by and competition emerged, we all know what happened. Ratings began to drive agendas and heat over light became the norm. In recent years, the lip gloss quotient (it works for both genders) has become more important than IQ. The definition of fair and balanced has nothing to do with truth and is satisfied if voices from the far left and right are encouraged to spew their dogma in angry debate. The anchors are there to simply fuel the fire with no duty to steer guests to substantive conversation, much less to insist on facts over fatuous rhetoric.
Unfortunately, many people still get their dose of news from these locales. Watching favored channels, they absorb material that usually comports with their established world-view. Opposing positions are presented as fodder for their gladiators to shoot down or lampoon by the force of personality alone, or, regardless of the content, as demonstrating equilibrium in the discussion.
We are in one of the most critical presidential races in our lifetimes. The issues are monumental; a collapsing economy, the never-ending war in Iraq, global climate change. Yet we watch as the networks loop Rev. Wright sound bites (with not a single one offering up the easily accessed sermons in long form so viewers can form a reasoned opinion about the man and his agenda), or maybe they debate the phrase 'a typical white person' ad nauseam. I have no problem challenging Barack Obama on his association with the minister, but as with most stories, a few phrases from Wright's career do nothing to inform people about the man or his mission. It is the duty of the media to offer the big picture on this (and so many other stories) so viewers can make a reasoned decision, but unless I've missed it, no news organization has tried. The purveyors of news must bravely offer information that may challenge the audience despite the backlash from time to time.
The press knows how influential it is in shaping attitudes and opinions. However, the mind-numbing drivel most of us subject ourselves to serves only to polarize and solidify preconceived positions; so much so, that when actual facts slip into discussion, they are dismissed as mere partisan ammunition. There are exceptions to this rule, but that equation should be reversed.
Anchors have abdicated their role as educated inquisitors; some because, simply, they are unqualified or unprepared, others because they would rather cater to their guests or the corporate bottom line than to the mission to bring truth to the airwaves. And yes, there is objective truth, or at least legitimate facts from which people may divine their own conclusions.
I could harp on the trivial or tabloid character of the material that passes for news, but that beef is for another day. Instead, it is time for serious revolt by the many journalists who cringe at the current product they are selling. I applauded yesterday as Brian Kilmeade walked off set when his companions on Fox and Friends blathered on insanely about Wright and again when Chris Wallace chastised them for their diarrheic oratory on the subject. This response should be repeated on the other outlets as well.
Follow Catherine Crier on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@catherinecrier